The voice of ‘SpongeBob’ lives below Hollywood’s surface. See him, his band at LexCon

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As Guillermo del Toro’s “Pinocchio” was being named Best Animated Feature at the 2023 Oscars, one of its actors was in attendance at a much different show.

“My phone started blowing up on Oscar night, ‘You’re in an Oscar-winning film dude!’” Tom Kenny said in a phone interview this week. “I really don’t watch award shows. I was down in East L.A. watching Mexican wrestling. As you can tell, I’m not really an industry player.”

Kenny — a guest this weekend at the 11th annual Lexington Comic and Toy Convention — portrays Pinocchio antagonist Benito Mussolini (based on the real-life fascist) as well as a couple other bit characters in the film. It’s arguably the most-acclaimed work with which the 60-year-old has been involved, but it’s far from the most recognizable. That honor goes to SpongeBob SquarePants,” a titanic franchise that has spawned three feature films, two spin-off shows and nearly 300 episodes.

The sea-dwelling Nickelodeon comedy TV show has held its own in the award category, too. Among dozens of animation- and family-specific honors it also boasts five Daytime Emmy Awards. Two of them — for Outstanding Performer in 2018 and 2020 — were earned by Kenny, who’s portrayed the titular sponge, among other characters, since the show premiered in 1999. It’ll celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2024.

“There’s a lot of stuff planned that they say they’re going to tell me about, but I don’t have an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) to violate yet,” Kenny said with a laugh. “I’m sure it’ll be exciting and huge.”

Tom Kenny attends the world premiere of “The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water” at AMC Lincoln Square in 2015, in New York. Kenny, the longtime voice SpongeBob SquarePants, will meet with fans for photo-ops on Friday and Saturday at LexCon.
Tom Kenny attends the world premiere of “The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water” at AMC Lincoln Square in 2015, in New York. Kenny, the longtime voice SpongeBob SquarePants, will meet with fans for photo-ops on Friday and Saturday at LexCon.

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A Syracuse, N.Y., native who after high school graduation chose stand-up comedy over going to college, Kenny’s career in animation started on another Nick show, “Rocko’s Modern Life,” in 1993. There he befriended the late Stephen Hillenburg, a director and story editor on the show who would go on to create “SpongeBob SquarePants” based on some of his previous concepts. Kenny didn’t even have to audition for the role that’d make him a superstar in the voice-acting world; Hillenburg wanted SpongeBob to sound similar to a throwaway voice Kenny recorded for “Rocko’s.”

While Kenny, who will meet with fans for photo-ops on Friday and Saturday at LexCon, makes a steady living in Bikini Bottom — in addition to recording, he’s been the voice director on “SpongeBob” and its spin-offs since 2015 — he’s built a diverse portfolio of voice and on-screen credits. His IMDB page is ridiculous: the show “Agent Elvis,” which premiered earlier this month on Netflix, is the most recent of almost 600 unique shows across which he’s voiced more than 1,000 characters. In addition to del Toro’s “Pinocchio,” in the last couple of years he’s voiced characters in two other animated takes on the classic story.

Tom Kenny arrives at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards March 4, 2023, at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. Kenny has been the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants for 24 years.
Tom Kenny arrives at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards March 4, 2023, at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. Kenny has been the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants for 24 years.

Animation is a unique storytelling medium in that it affords actors the ability to step outside of their physical form to perform. Whereas someone like Brendan Fraser might have to don prosthetics to fully bring to life a character as he did in “The Whale,” voice actors do so in tandem with visual artists. In front of a camera, Kenny might be confined to playing a “dorky dad — or grandad, these days,” but through the magic of animation …

“In show business, the surface — how you look, your face, your body type, whatever — is the most important thing when you’re on camera,” Kenny said. “When you’re doing animation, it’s the least important thing. So as a result, I’ve been able to play robots and animals and sponges and snails and super-cut superheroes and aliens. All kinds of different accents, vocal ranges. Good guys, bad guys, nice guys, horrible guys, naive guys, conniving guys.

“It’s like the most fun part of being a character actor, which always were the actors I loved most and wanted to be.”

Tom Kenny and The Hi-Seas cover band

Kenny over the last decade — through his work on “SpongeBob SquarePants” got into writing and performing music. He’s one of the vocalists for The Hi-Seas, a 12-piece cover band that specializes in throwback rock and roll, soul and R&B music, and dress in kind.

The whole ensemble — they never perform apart — will be in Lexington to play during LexCon’s after-party. Getting in front of live audiences, and with a group of found family, has provided to Kenny a sense of community that was eroded by the COVID-19 pandemic; his voice-over work, even the directing, occurs from the confines of a home studio now.

“It’s kind of nice to be unshackled and run around the rock and roll dog park and in some dive bar, night club or something,” Kenny said. “Just climb on tables, scream and dance, do all that stuff.”

Stick around long enough and you might get to hear SpongeBob break out in song. You won’t see that at the Oscars.

Lexington Comic and Toy Convention

When: 6-10 p.m. Thursday, March 23; Noon-8 p.m. Friday, March 24; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday, March 25; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday, March 26

Where: Central Bank Center, 430 W. Vine St.

Tickets: $30-$140

Online: lexingtoncomiccon.com

Tom Kenny and The Hi-Seas concert

When: 9 p.m. Saturday, March 25

Where: Regency Ballroom, Hyatt Regency Lexington, 401 W High St.

Tickets: You must have a VIP badge to attend